Constable: A lifetime shared together ends with COVID-19
Carmen and Mary Siciliano started married life in a one-room apartment during World War II. They ended it 76 years later in a fifth-floor hospital room they shared with COVID-19.
Carmen, 98, died at 10:48 a.m. Thursday at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, six days after he was given a bed next to Mary, who was diagnosed with the coronavirus first. Mary, still recovering, moved Friday into a skilled nursing facility in Batavia, say their daughters, Joyce Siciliano Andringa of Aurora and Gail Siciliano Grazian of Naperville.
Mary's bed was pushed close enough before Carmen's death for her to touch her husband's arm as they listened to a recording of Nat King Cole singing their favorites such as "Autumn Leaves" and "Unforgettable."
"We asked if she wanted to be in the same room holding my dad's hand when he goes to heaven, and she said yes," says Gail, who says her father always wanted to take care of her mother. "We told him we were going to take care of her from now on."
The couple's love and commitment to each other inspired doctors, nurses and other staff members at Good Samaritan. Hospital rooms are designated for single patients but the family thought it would help if Carmen and Mary could be in adjoining beds in the same room of the respiratory isolation unit.
"Our physicians also thought that was a great idea," says nurse Rene Scheier, interim manager of the Clinical Resource Unit at Good Samaritan. "It was set up perfectly for them."
They even made room for Carmen's World War II hat that he wore until his death, foam boards filled with photographs from their life together, and a CD player.
"It's important for us to provide holistic care," Scheier says. "We could see how important this was for the entire Siciliano family. This is a perfect example of the type of compassion our team members have for our patients at Good Sam."
Mary Monstere was just 14 when she left her family's farm and her nine siblings in Louisiana to babysit for her older brother's family on Chicago's South Side, across the street from where Carmen Siciliano lived with his parents and nine siblings.
"My parents were farmers, and when I graduated eighth grade, I asked, 'Can I go to high school?'" Mary explained. "And they said, 'No. We have to eat.'"
After each day of classes at Parker High School in Chicago, Carmen would take a train downtown for a job unloading mail bags from trains onto trucks. He quit high school to take a better-paying job cutting the heads and legs off chickens for Campbell Soup Co.
Their first date was on Mary's 15th birthday, when Carmen took her downtown to see the movie "Sergeant York." The five-year age difference didn't bother Mary, whose mother was married at age 13 in Italy.
Once they started dating, World War II was the only thing that kept them apart. Even then, Carmen, who enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Newfoundland, Canada, wrote a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Monstere asking for their daughter's hand in marriage. Carmen also persuaded his captain to give him a two-week leave so he could wed Mary on Aug. 5, 1944. Mary was 17. Carmen was 22.
During the war, Mary lied about her age to get a job winding wire coils in a factory where an older brother worked. She and Carmen wrote each other lovely letters in spite of Carmen's gruesome duty handling the casualties of war. "All the dead bodies would come in, and we'd set them up so they could be brought back here," Carmen said.
He served the remainder of his military service as an X-ray technician in Fort Sheridan, and the newlyweds settled into domestic life without much money.
"We would wait until the stores closed, then we went window shopping," Carmen said. They raised their son, Frank, who died in 2016, and daughters Joyce and Gail in the south suburb of Dolton. An excellent gymnast and diver in high school, Carmen remained in great shape. He made a habit of performing handstands on the hood of every car he owned and once did an impromptu handstand on the ledge of Hoover Dam that almost got him arrested.
He made his living as a painter. He supervised a crew painting the Prudential Building, with the highest roof in Chicago at the time, and spent time every year at Wrigley Field, where "I painted the whole place," he said.
At the couple's 75th anniversary party in 2019, they gave a couple of tips for a happy marriage
"We never went to bed angry," Mary said.
"We always kissed before going to bed," Carmen added. Then he played "Happy Anniversary" on his harmonica -- but only after removing the dentures from his mouth and handing them to Mary, who clearly had played that part before. He also played taps every Veterans Day, until the one the day before he died.
During the pandemic, their daughters and other family members generally had to gather on a patio and shout up to Carmen and Mary on the second-floor balcony at Heritage Woods assisted living facility in Batavia, where they lived.
In August, the couple made a trip to Joyce's house, where they got haircuts in the garage, and Joyce gave them both manicures and pedicures. The last time the family got to be with the couple in person was at a socially distanced gender-reveal party in September outside Heritage Woods. That's when they found out their grandson Jayson and Ninnette Nofzinger would be parents of a boy due in January 2021, when Carmen would have turned 99.
The last time the daughters saw their parents was on a Zoom call to show them photos of the family's newest additions -- twin granddaughters born on Halloween, the couple's third and fourth great-grandchildren. Carmen, who is legally blind, held the image up to his face.
"My mom wants to get her hands on those babies," Gail says.
"My dad has been ready to go," Joyce says, explaining how Carmen used to blame his daughters and wife for keeping him alive too long. When he planned his funeral years ago, Carmen told his wife, "If you die before me, I'll kill you," and joked, "Don't bury me in the smoking section."
On the first phone call with the daughters after Carmen died, Mary cried. But they all realize the couple had a pretty amazing run. The couple shared everything, but mostly love. Even at the end
"God was on our shoulder guiding this journey," Gail says.
The "angels" who helped along the way ease the pain.
"They had a great life," Joyce says of her parents. "People need to hear wonderful stories of love and hope."